Turkey’s contemporary art scene is buzzing. Collectors pay millions for the hottest works at exclusive auctions, high-end galleries are springing up by the dozen, and more and more Turkish artists are holding exhibitions abroad.
The clients are the usual family magnates and super-rich — Istanbul ranks fifth in the world on the Forbes list of billionaires — but they also include an expanding class of young professionals looking for investment opportunities and a touch of prestige.
The boom in Turkey’s modern art market has coincided with a decade of steady economic growth. Since a financial meltdown brought the Turkish banking sector to its knees in 2001, the economy has more than doubled in size and per capita income has tripled in nominal terms.
“There are many young professionals who make good money and really want to have a piece of art in their home,” painter Yigit Yazici said as he sipped an espresso at his studio in Istanbul’s upmarket Nisantasi District.
Traditionally, patronage of the arts in Turkey was left to wealthy industrialist families.
The Sakip Sabanci Museum, owned by the Sabanci family, opened in Istanbul in 2002. Two years later, the Eczacibasi family launched the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, followed by Suna and Inan Kirac Foundation’s Pera Museum in 2005.
The launch of Istanbul’s International Contemporary Art Exhibition, known as the Istanbul Biennial, in 1987 introduced many once-skeptical Turks to contemporary forms of painting and sculpture.
However, it was the opening of the Istanbul Modern — Turkey’s first modern art museum — nine years ago that really changed the scene by creating a space for contemporary artists that combined permanent and temporary exhibitions, a photography gallery, and educational and social programs.
“A museum is an orderly home for art and this is what we have achieved here,” said Levent Calikoglu, chief curator at the Istanbul Modern.
“For the artists it’s prestigious to be included in the museum, and for investors it creates a benchmark and a guarantee for their investments,” he said.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party has come under frequent criticism for curbing freedom of expression in the nation and there are growing fears that the arts — and artists — could be affected.
Critics cite examples such as the recent trial of world-renowned concert pianist Fazil Say on a charge of insulting religious values with a posting on Twitter. He received a 10-month suspended jail sentence.
In 2011, a work by sculptor Mehmet Aksoy in the eastern province of Kars was torn down after Erdogan described it as a “freak.”
However, the availability of patronage and influx of money have emboldened Turkish artists, integrating them increasingly into the global art world and giving them a sense of greater independence in Turkey’s often conservative environment.
“Political power and art have never been at peace in Turkey. The only difference now is that the conflict is now more visible and we discuss it openly,” Calikoglu said.
In the absence of significant government support, private-sector sponsorship has become the mainstay of art through the purchases and commissions of major banks such as Ziraat Bankasi, Garanti, Akbank and Yapi Kredi, and art-savvy corporations.
Recently, independent collectors have also started making inroads as prominent buyers of sculpture. Central Istanbul has seen dozens of new art galleries in just the past few years.